She still couldn’t shake the previous night’s dream. As usual, the factual details did not add up, but the mood was clear. It was another anxiety-laden drama about missing deadlines, missing trains, losing important things, or even stepping off cliffs, being pursued by kidnappers or trapped in a large, dark museum. Her dreams were almost always like this, despite the apparent placidity of her life as a forty-something librarian in a small town.
Sometimes, like today, she awoke with a start and let out a little sharp cry, heart pounding, muscles tense, sweat beading up on the back of her neck. This time it had been a vivid dream about leaving her baby son sitting on the side of a busy road in his infant car seat sleeping. In the dream she was in a hurry, distracted, and late for work. A bit later in the dream she realized what she had forgotten, returned in a panic, and found the baby gone. A wave of feelings washed over her-fear, profound worry, and the certainty that she would never see her baby again.
It was that latter feeling that continued to grip her as she tried to launch her day. As a single parent of an only child, she had grown so close to her son that the idea of him being halfway around the world was incomprehensible. But that was exactly where he was. He was not only far away, but he was in harm’s way, and only rarely communicated. She had fiercely protected him for 20 years-shielded him from want, from unhappiness, from loneliness, from illness and injury (to the extent she could). She had sacrificed her own pleasures and leisure time to be sure he had music lessons, trips with the Boy Scouts, and hockey equipment.
As she put water in the coffeepot, she thought about how restless he was in his senior year and reluctant to go through the college admission hoops. He enrolled last minute at the community college and took some classes, but nothing that really sparked his attention. Therefore it should not have come as a total surprise when an army recruiter got him thinking about the military as his next move. Maybe the army would teach him something that could be transformed into a career after a few years. And in the meantime, she wondered, would he relish a bit of distance from his mother?
She stared into her bathroom mirror, applying her makeup, reminded that at his age she too had been restless, aimless, looking for something to care about. A few casual dates with a large and exotic serviceman from American Samoa she met in a karaoke bar resulted in an unplanned pregnancy. By the time she was showing, she had arranged to stay with a cousin who lived in a large city apartment building where anonymity was possible. The Samoan’s genetic material was obviously present in the burly physique and tawny skin of her son, but that did not qualify her casual date to be more than an unknowing sperm donor. She raised the boy on her own.
She sat down at the kitchen table, with the newspaper in front of her unread. She recalled how her parents had been unsympathetic as she tried to finish her degree and find work to support herself and the boy. Her work as a clerk in the public library paid the bills and she eventually finished her M.L.S. at night. It had not been easy, she thought, and she and her son had bonded as if they had been in battle together. (In a sense they had.) Now he was in battle for real, she noted silently as she flipped through the mail.
There was a personal letter postmarked Pago Pago, American Samoa. She had not been expecting a letter, and especially not this one. It was addressed in an unfamiliar and somewhat rough masculine hand. She hesitated, then opened it nervously.
I know you will be surprised to hear from me after all these years, but no more surprised than I was when a young soldier who says he is our son contacted me from Iraq. (He gave me your address.) Is he really my son?
He says he used his military sources to narrow down a list of American Samoans who would have been in the U.S. Army stationed in Iowa twenty years ago. What have you told him about his father? Is he really my son? He wants to meet me.
Needless to say, this is a big shock. I need to hear from you right away. Sincerely,
She put her head down on the table and sobbed. Now she felt she had lost her son for good.